In case you hadn't noticed, the asylum system has essentially collapsed. A lucky few still have their cases decided, but they seem to be a minority. It is painfully clear that the backlog continues to grow. It currently stands at about 327,000 affirmative asylum cases and more than 908,000 cases in Immigration Court (how many of these court cases involve asylum, I do not know). The heart of the problem is mathematical: Too many applicants; too few resources. Unfortunately, we are not moving towards a solution at either the legislative or regulatory levels.

In terms of new regulations and policies, the Trump Administration's only apparent plan is to deter would-be asylum seekers by making the process more painful and by trying to block people from reaching our shores. In my opinion, making the asylum process more painful won't work. That's because whatever harm the Administration can impose (family separation, indefinite detention, "wait in Mexico," hieleras, tear gas, stricter legal standards) pales in comparison to the harm many asylum seekers face if they return home (death). Asylum seekers, being rational actors, are simply choosing the lesser evil, and coming to the United States. Blocking people from coming here might be more effective, but again, I have my doubts. People are fleeing for their lives and determined to reach safety, and so gaining better cooperation from Mexico, building bigger walls, and tightening up visa requirements will only get us so far.

The "problem" from the Trump Administration's viewpoint is that the law of asylum still offers refuge to those fleeing persecution. Thus, the Administration's efforts to change the regulations (which modify how the law is applied) can do only so much. To change the law requires Congressional action. During the first two years of Mr. Trump's presidency--when Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress--there was no effort to reform the asylum law. Now, with the Democrats in control of the House, legislation is only possible if the two parties reach a compromise. And compromise in Washington has lately proved elusive (just a bit).

Elusive, yes, but perhaps not impossible. Recently, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham proposed changes to the asylum system to increase the length of time families can be held in detention and to add 500 new Immigration Judges, among other (mostly punitive) ideas. Despite the hard line, Mr. Graham expressed a willingness to "put other immigration ideas on the table to marry up with this." Mr. Graham's bill may be all stick and no carrot, but at least it signals a desire to address asylum reform. On the House side, the Democratic majority (with a few Republicans) passed a bill to protect Dreamers. Perhaps these opening bids could lead us in a productive direction.

The fact is, while asylum policy is a difficult issue, it should be amenable to a legislative fix. If politics were removed from the mix (a very big "if"), we could find policy solutions that would greatly improve the current situation. What would such a "solution" look like? Spoiler alert: I don't have an answer. But I do have some ideas, at least about where we can get started--a foundation upon which legislation can be built. Here, I want to discuss the fundamental elements of this foundation:

- We must be honest about the problem: The Trump Administration has not been truthful about why asylum seekers are coming to our country, who they are, or what they do once they get here. It's very difficult to move towards a reasonable policy solution when we are living in dystopian fantasy land. Asylum seekers are not invading our country. They are not coming to collect welfare or commit crimes. The data is pretty clear that they are basically regular people, who are coming here because they fear harm back home. They tend to commit fewer crimes than the average American, and they make an overall modest contribution to our economy. Reforming the asylum system will require a realistic and honest appraisal of asylum seekers, and so we have to stop the politically-motivated effort to demonize them.

- We need to decide who should receive asylum: The asylum law provides for five protected categories: Race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and particular social group ("PSG"). These categories exist because our nation decided to protect people who face these types of harm. Conversely, other types of harm--such as generalized violence in war or criminal violence--were not considered worthy of protection. Why did we make this distinction? Because these types of harm in some way reflect our national values (political freedom, religious freedom, and racial equality, to name a few). But these categories were largely created by white men to protect against harm inflicted on other white men, and national values evolve over time. In the case of the protected asylum categories, this evolution occurred through litigation, not through any sort of consensus legislation (with one exception, which relates to forced abortion and forced sterilization).

For example, litigation has expanded the definition of PSG to encompass a diverse range of applicants (LGBT individuals, victims of FGM, victims of domestic violence, members of a family, and many more) who were not on the radar when the law was created. This indeterminacy has led to shifting interpretations of the law (depending partly on the Administration in power), inconsistent decision-making at the individual level, and confusion and misinformation among asylum seekers about who is protected. This chaos has contributed to the influx of Central American migrants arriving at our Southern border, who are mostly seeking protection based on PSG.

In order to resolve this crisis, we need to make a decision by legislation, not by litigation, about who we want to protect. For example, we can choose to protect victims of domestic violence, or not. That is our right as a sovereign nation. However, in making that decision, we need to be honest about what we are doing--these people are often facing life-threatening harm. We can send them back, if we so choose, but we cannot pretend that they are returning to someplace safe. In other words, we can choose to let anyone in, or keep anyone out, but we have a moral obligation to make that decision based on facts--not based on anti-immigrant propaganda. If we can define more precisely who is eligible for protection, we can create more certainty for migrants, and hopefully deter those who do not qualify. Further, if this is done with the support of most Americans (i.e., through legislation), the decision about who to protect will have more legitimacy and be more sustainable.

- We need to decide how much due process is due: Even for people arriving at the border, we have a Cadillac-immigration system. This includes Border Patrol Agents, detention facilities, Asylum Officers, Immigration Judges, ICE attorneys, administrative support staff, and many others. All this is expensive, especially when you have thousands of asylum applicants presenting at the border each week. Our system is not designed to handle such a high volume of cases, and unless we are prepared to significantly increase resources to review asylum applications, something has to change.

One option is to screen applicants and release those who pass a credible fear interview ("CFI"), and then require them to return for a court hearing (what our President has eloquently called "catch and release"). This has the advantage of ensuring a high level of due process for everyone seeking protection at our borders, but has the disadvantage of essentially opening the border to anyone who can pass a CFI (a relatively low bar). It also seems to be politically unpopular. Another option is to detain some or all asylum seekers until we can give them a full hearing. This has the advantage of providing a higher level of due process (to the extent that a person can exercise her due process rights while detained), but comes with a heavy cost, both economically and in human terms. A third option is to provide a lower level of due process, maybe a rigorous CFI, followed by removal for those who are denied. Such a system would provide some measure of justice, but would result in the return of many people who might qualify for protection if they had time to gather evidence and present their cases. Another option might be to provide no due process at all: Anyone who requests asylum at the border can be placed into a refugee camp or sent to a safe third country, and will remain there until the crisis in the home country is resolved (which the way things are going, is probably forever). This would solve the problem of protecting people from imminent harm, but would result in long-term issues, since it would potentially create a permanent community of displaced people.

Perhaps the point here is that, while there may be no perfect solution, we need to think in realistic terms about the level of due process we want to offer asylum seekers who arrive at our border.

The idea that Congress and the President could actually come up with a rational solution to improve the asylum system seems almost fantastical in this age of divisiveness and gridlock. But something has to be done. The first step is to speak honestly about what is going on, and then to work towards a solution that is made democratically, and which considers our country's national and economic security, moral ideals, humanitarian commitments, and the rule of law.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: